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The fairy tale of the Dominican ballplayer is a cliché by now: An impoverished boy using a milk carton for a glove catches the eye of a scout who whisks him away from his dirt-floor existence and onto the lush lawn of a major league stadium. But that narrative is as wrong as it is hackneyed.
Baseball in the Dominican Republic long ago morphed from a quaint game into an industry of players, scouts and unregulated youth-coaches-cum-agents, all fighting over the $125 million that MLB pumps into the island each year. Ballplayer: Pelotero, a new documentary that opened last Friday, debunks the fantasy and serves as a compelling primer of what that industry is really like. It traces the signing of two young players—Miguel Angel Sanó, a gregarious, once-in-a-generation talent, and Jean Carlos Batista, a somber teen intent on replacing his dead father as the family breadwinner—to demonstrate how a nation of just 10 million people can produce 11% of today's major leaguers.
Directors Ross Finkel, Trevor Martin and Jon Paley mostly succeed in balancing a detached depiction of the Dominican baseball world with intimate portraits of the two players, such as Batista's visit to his father's grave, or Sanó's dream, in a moment of levity, of simply ordering chicken in the United States.
The filmmakers largely allow images to speak for themselves. Scenes inside the homes of Batista and Sanó do more to illustrate the players' crippling poverty than any GDP statistic can, and questions about the invasiveness of MLB's mandatory age and identity investigations are experienced viscerally when a lab technician hands Sanó two cups: one for his urine and one for his feces.
But at other times Pelotero suffers for perhaps too fully embracing the notion that MLB bears the lion's share of blame for the exploitation of these boys. That surfaces in the film's most-buzzed-about segment: Grainy footage, secretly recorded by Sanó's family, shows a meeting with Pirates scout Rene Gayo, whom the family believes colluded with MLB officials to delay an age investigation that Sanó needed in order to sign with a team. The cynical (and guided) thinking here: Gayo was working to deflate the value of Sanó's signing bonus. But the footage, while suggestive, is hardly conclusive. SI reviewed the entire video in 2009 and could not corroborate the family's claims. (MLB has since released a statement saying that the film contains "inaccuracies.")
Pelotero is at its best when it's not trying to answer questions, but rather presenting them for viewers to ponder themselves. Whatever happened in that room, the fuzzy images leave us with the sense that much more transparency is needed in handling these young men's careers.
As part of its latest collective bargaining agreement, MLB formed its second committee within the last four years to address the corruption and abuses like those suggested in Pelotero. But the first step toward resolution is understanding—and Pelotero effectively inches us toward both.